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MoPOP at dusk, Seattle

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Keith Alexander Follies

I saw an article weeks ago that I think bears commenting on. It might be behind a pay wall for you but here is a link to the story. The title of the piece from the Financial Times is Why Was the NSA Chief Playing the Market?

One of the jobs of the NSA is to obtain economic information from other countries, crop forecasts, market stability, etc. Brazil was in a snit earlier this year when they found out the lengths of our economic surveillance in their country.

Presumably we don't utilize this information to benefit american companies against their competitors. But does the classified information possibly enrich our own spymasters?

Ex NSA Director Keith Alexander has been dogged by these sorts of allegations and questions for years. I recognize that a retired spook with years of service to his country has a right to make a living. But does he or she have a right to trade, sell or benefit from classified information?
At the same time that he was running the United States' biggest intelligence-gathering organization, former National Security Agency Director Keith Alexander owned and sold shares in commodities linked to China and Russia, two countries that the NSA was spying on heavily. At the time, Alexander was a three-star general whose financial portfolio otherwise consisted almost entirely of run-of-the-mill mutual funds and a handful of technology stocks. Why he was engaged in commodities trades, including trades in one market that experts describe as being run by an opaque "cartel" that can befuddle even experienced professionals, remains unclear. When contacted, Alexander had no comment about his financial transactions, which are documented in recently released financial disclosure forms that he was required to file while in government. The NSA also had no comment.
Could the boundaries of ethics and propriety have been breached by these trades? You tell me. Smells a little schmutzig..
...the trades raise questions about whether Alexander's job gave him insights into corporations and markets that may have influenced his personal financial investments. The NSA, which Alexander ran for more than eight years, routinely spies on foreign governments and businesses, including in Russia and China, where the agency has attempted to gain insights into political decision-making, economic strategy, and the countries' plans for acquiring natural resources.
The financial disclosure documents, which were released to investigative journalist Jason Leopold and published this month by Vice News, reveal nothing explicitly about why Alexander sold the shares when he did. On Jan. 7, 2008, Alexander sold previously purchased shares in the Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan, a Canadian firm that mines potash, a mineral typically used in fertilizer. The potash market is largely controlled by companies in Canada, as well as in Belarus and Russia. And China was, and is, one of the biggest consumers of the substance, using it to expand the country's agricultural sector and produce higher crop yields.
"It's a market that's really odd, involving collusion, where companies essentially coordinate on prices and output," said Craig Pirrong, a finance professor and commodities expert at the University of Houston's Bauer College of Business.
"Strange things happen in the potash market. It's a closed market. Whenever you have Russians and Chinese being big players, a lot of stuff goes on in the shadows."
Earlier this year, Alexander was dogged by allegations that he was selling information gleaned from his activities at the NSA to tech firms.  He invested heavily in certain firms that were doing classified work, raising troubling conflict of interest questions.
...But another of Alexander's business deals has also raised questions about whether he continues to benefit from classified information and access to top players at his old agency.
In an employment deal that prompted an internal investigation at the NSA and inquiries from Capitol Hill, Alexander arranged for the agency's chief technology officer, Patrick Dowd, to work part time for a new cybersecurity consulting firm that Alexander started this year after leaving the NSA and retiring from the Army with a fourth star. Experts said the public-private setup was highly unusual and possibly unprecedented.
Reuters revealed the arrangement last week, and on Tuesday, Oct. 21, with pressure building from lawmakers to investigate, Alexander said that he was severing the relationship with Dowd. "While we understand we did everything right, I think there's still enough issues out there that create problems for Dr. Dowd, for NSA, for my company," Alexander told Reuters when explaining why he scuttled the deal. 

He may not have crossed the lines of propriety but according to Techdirt, he is right up against it.
Current and former U.S. intelligence officials, some of whom requested anonymity to discuss personnel matters, said they could not recall a previous instance in which a high-ranking U.S. intelligence official was allowed to concurrently work for a private-sector firm.
As Maxwell Smart used to say, the old revolving door trick.

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